Editor’s Note: This series of reports on the five Zapatista autonomous centers, or caracoles , by Gloria Muñoz Ramírez was first published in Spanish as a special section of the Mexican national newspaper La Jornada, Sept. 19, 2004, following a series of on-site reports by the author. On the 15th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising, the Americas Program is pleased to present readers with the only full authorized translation to English, by Americas Program director Laura Carlsen. There are many lessons to be learned from the nitty-gritty experiences of grassroots democracy and development from the ground up that are going on in these communities. As they face increasing hostilities from government armed forces and paramilitary groups, we will continue to cover their efforts in a follow-up series looking specifically at this latest stage of resistance.

A tree-fringed river cuts through the fourth Zapatista Caracol, in the ejido of Morelia, in Altamirano. It is the Tzotz Choj region (“brave tiger” in Tzeltzal)—a zone of cattle ranchers and paramilitaries, the place where the federal army raped an indigenous woman and tortured and killed three EZLN militants in 1994.

The Caracol is located at the end of the village in a place surrounded by pine trees. In 1996, the political and cultural meeting space now known as Aguascalientes IV was built here. Today the place is nothing like it was years ago; at the entrance there is an appropriate technology workshop; in the center of the town there’s a shoemaking workshop and dormitories; the auditorium is at the back, and at the side is the office of the Good Government Board with its satellite Internet connection.

As in other Zapatista Caracoles, the wood and cement buildings are decorated with murals showing revolutionary images. On the walls of one of the dormitories, a painting is dedicated to “the martyrs of Morelia, murdered on Jan. 7, 1994.” At the height of the war, the army seized the village, and took the men found in their homes into the town square, where they were tortured, and then shot to death. Although it is an old story, it is one that lives on in the memory of the people here.

Today the atmosphere is different. A group of Catalans from the “Collective of Solidarity with the Zapatista Rebellion” have come to the Caracol and, taking advantage of the fact that there is a group of education promoters here undergoing a training course, joined with them to prepare a puppet show with revolutionary songs and children’s stories.

The newest building is the cafeteria El Paliacate (“The Bandana”), located at the other end of the Caracol. There you can get something to eat and also find copies of the local autonomous publication. This region was the first to organize its own publications to give voice to the views of the people. A few years ago, they published a small newspaper that sent indigenous reporters to cover the Zapatista marches and mobilizations.

Now they distribute a pamphlet published by Autonomous Editions in Rebellion that tells the history of the trade center, “Centro de Comercio Nuevo Amanecer del Arco Iris” (“New Dawn of the Rainbow”), and another that tells the story of the struggle of Zapatista women in the villages and the women insurgents in the Zapatista army.

The trade center “New Dawn of the Rainbow” is one of the things to be proud of in this region. It is located at the Cuxulja crossroads in the Moises Gandhi community, on land occupied in the past by one of the seven military positions whose withdrawal the EZLN demanded. Now, “in the same place where we fought courageously against the military” this collective was formed, surviving threats of eviction from the state Public Security Force and threats from members of the PRI and PRD. The center is the first project jointly organized by the seven autonomous townships in the zone and was begun even before the Good Government Board formed. The seven townships are: Primero de Enero, Olga Isabel, 17 de Noviembre, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Vicente Guerrero, Miguel Hidalgo, and Lucio Cabañas.

The communities in this region are known for the strong participation of women. The now-famous Comandante Esther who appeared before Congress is the product of more than 10 years of political work in these villages. Progress has been made, although gender inequality still persists. For example, the Good Government Board is the only one with a woman on each of the seven autonomous councils. The Board has a total of 28 members, 21 men and seven women, so there is always a woman on shift, representing a quarter of the autonomous government. It is not a lot, but compared to the other Boards it has the largest presence of women in government.

The Tzeltal, Tzotzil, and Tojolabal women of the seven municipalities are also pioneers in collective work. The number of collectives in the villages has been growing steadily. They now include vegetables and horticulture, sewing and embroidery, candle making, and bakeries. Maria explains that “the profit from this work is distributed to the individual women to a small extent, but the largest part is used for communal benefit.”

Women’s monetary contribution to the family economy gives them a new place within the community, and in this way the women are gaining the respect of their parents, husbands, brothers, and sons.

Seated in the middle of six men in the office of the Good Government Board, the only woman on the shift points out: “We still need to participate more. Some men who understand the struggle are now learning that women are equal in ability to men in all areas of work, but not all men understand … Many men don’t let their wives or daughters take courses or work outside their villages. In villages where men think right, women do their work well.”

The influence of indigenous Zapatista women who are involved in work has now permeated other organizations. Maria says, “In my village the PRI men are beginning to allow their women to go out because the women claim that only the Zapatista women are allowed to go out. The PRI women tell their husbands that they can also earn money with integrity and so they went out to work too.”

Education for Peace and Humanity

While this interview is being held in the Board’s office, players tussle over the ball in the basketball game between male and female education promoters. Gender inequality is also visible in the area of education, but only at the level of promoters, educators, or education delegates (here there are three types). In the community schools there are almost the same number of girls as boys. Most of the teachers are male, but the ratio of male-to-female pupils is nearly equal. The girls are going to school and now spend less time looking after their young brothers and sisters or making tortillas.

Autonomous education has been functioning here since 1995 and now a total of 280 education delegates give classes to 2,500 pupils in seven municipalities. It is also the only zone that has a training center for promoters in each autonomous municipality and not just one for the whole zone.

As in the other Zapatista territories, children not only learn to read and write, but most importantly, “they learn to struggle, to defend their surroundings, to look after nature, and be proud of their culture.” Here they study agricultural production, politics, art, culture, reading and writing, health, sports, math, history, and languages (Spanish and their mother tongues). These courses were developed by 200 indigenous education promoters from the seven municipalities over the course of dozens of meetings.

One odd fact that tells a lot about autonomous education is that to enroll in basic education each child brings a chicken as payment, because the education promoters now rely on a farm with chickens and eggs to provide food for their pupils. Similarly, each one of the primary schools was built from the resources in the community with no external support, so they are made of blocks, planks, or cement. The promoters also work in borrowed or temporary houses with a plastic roof for protection. “A school,” they say, “is not the building.”

The education program in the zone is called “Organización para la nueva educación autónoma indígena por la paz y la humanidad” (“Organization for New Autonomous Education for Peace and Humanity”). Like all Zapatista names, the name reflects a carefully thought-out concept.

The most recent development in education is that this year secondary courses began. It is also the only one of the five Zapatista zones that has a secondary school in each municipality—seven in total. The first generation of primary children has already graduated, and they have now taken courses to make sure everyone is ready to start the next grade. “In the past we could never have dreamed of having a school, and now we have more than 100 primary schools and seven secondary schools,” say the autonomous authorities.

Many Needs and Free Consultation

The Zapatista villages in this region are gradually using fewer pharmaceutical medicines and are promoting campaigns to use herbal and plant medicines. Natural medicine is growing in importance, and medicines are prepared using a variety of natural remedies.

A total of 150 health promoters look after Zapatista and non-Zapatista patients in more than 100 community health houses. They use basic medicines, some pharmaceutical and some herbal. “Herbal medicine is given free and we only charge the cost of pharmaceutical medicines,” explain the members of the Board. There are also seven municipal clinics that offer free consultations to all Zapatistas, like others in the territories in resistance. A lab for clinical analysis has just started up, run by specialized promoters.

The needs are many. In this zone there is no dental service, no clinics with operating rooms, no hospital services, much less an ambulance. When someone gets seriously ill, he or she has to be transferred to the San Carlos Hospital, located in the regional capital of Altamirano. They are looked after there by nuns who in 1994 were threatened with death by the local bosses and ranch owners who accused them of the terrible crime of opening the hospital doors to anyone who knocked.

Despite these needs, the Zapatistas are making advances. They remember when “the government clinics gave us expired medicines, didn’t treat us with respect, and charged us for the consultation like private hospitals.”

The incidence of indigenous members of the PRI being treated in the autonomous health clinics is increasing in this zone. Hilario, a PRI member from the municipality Miguel Hidalgo notes that, “Sometimes we don’t even pay for consultations, but then we don’t have money either. Sometimes they give us ointments and don’t charge us and I think that’s good in an emergency.”

The Board states, “There is no way we will deny anyone a service. Health is for everyone. The money the government gives to the PRI members they spend on alcohol, and then they don’t have money to get health treatment or even for food. For us, health is the most important thing and they’re indigenous people who also need this service.”

Each autonomous municipality has a health commission tasked with investigating the situation in all of the communities. Before the existence of the Good Government Board, the authorities recognized that “many communities did not have a community health house, but now they all do. We have a general health plan, and every three months the commission meets to see how the work is progressing and to see where communities need first aid resources, to study which illnesses are presenting a problem, and to give encouragement where work needs to be done.”

Driving through the nearby villages, you can see the promoters working on three health campaigns: an effort to get rid of parasites, a vaccination campaign, and a hygiene campaign to prevent illnesses. “It is important to educate the people about where illness comes from. Otherwise we will continue to have to treat these illnesses,” Board member Daniel points out.

An End to the Use of Insecticides and Chemical Fertilizers

The land is one of the issues of most concern to the people. Despite difficulties, they are beginning to organize agricultural production. Now there is a production commission in each municipality to organize agricultural and cattle-raising projects. They are also training promoters to learn agro-ecology and veterinary skills. Some farmers now use machetes instead of insecticides to control pests. They also use organic fertilizers without chemicals.

A year has gone by since the Good Government Board began work, but the people have been doing collective work for many years. The Zapatistas continue to learn and above all, “to govern ourselves and to resolve our problems. The people learn to command and oversee our work, and we learn to obey. The people are wise and know if you make a mistake you go off track. That is how we work,” conclude the autonomous authorities.